Archive for the ‘Winifred Peck’ Category

Searching for a suitable book for Easter weekend?  Let me recommend Bewildering Cares by Winifred Peck, which suits the occasion admirably being both cosy and heavy with aspects of church life.   It wasn’t quite to my tastes but I suspect I am an aberration and many of you would enjoy it greatly.

Published in 1940, this short book covers a week in the life of Camilla Lacely, a vicar’s wife in a mid-sized northern town near Manchester.  A lover of E.M. Delafield, Camilla attempts to write about church committees, war work, local squabbles, and concerns about her overworked husband and enlisted son with the same verve as the Provincial Lady.  Inevitably, she fails to capture the humour and quick-wittedness of those books but the result is still pleasant.  The book does drag somewhat through Camilla’s church-related duties and these take up a tedious amount of time.  In Delafield’s light-hearted hands I have no doubt this could have been made entertaining but it becomes ponderous in Peck’s far more earnest ones.

The best thing about Camilla is her taste in books and my favourite passages were reading-related ones.  For instance, I loved her musings on her fictional predecessors:

…I am rereading with infinite pleasure of the clergy ladies of fiction, Mrs Elton and Mrs Proudie, Nancy Woodforde and Mrs John Wesley […] I let my mind sink into sleep, fancying what sort of address Mrs Elton gave to the Mothers’ Meeting (if any), and how Bishop Proudie ever found the courage to propose to Mrs Proudie.

And who could resist her prescription after a long and exhausting day?

Arthur came in looking so exhausted that I went to the book shelf and took out Mr Mulliner Speaks.  I propped this against the water-jug for him, and Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell, which I have read thirty times already and will probably read thirty more, against the loaf for myself.  There is nothing so good for worried people as to read at their meals, and funny books if possible…

Others have written far more fondly and at length about this book so do read the reviews by Audrey, Julie, and Lyn if you are interested in learning more.  I am happy to have read this but will equally happily consign my copy to the give-away pile.  For me, this book is a poor example of Peck’s talents.  Her gifts are more introspective than observational, more earnest than comic, and it feels like here she tries – with middling results – to be something she isn’t.  Much better to read the excellent House-Bound (published two years later) and be swept up into a thoughtful, moving story about the war’s impact on domestic life and social conventions.

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Claire and Verity’s Persephone Reading Weekend is finally here – hurrah!  I’m so looking forward to reading more about Persephones both old and new from all the participating bloggers.  I was still a relatively new convert to the Persephone cult last year during the reading week and it did so much to introduce me to titles I hadn’t yet thought of trying and to increase my enjoyment of the books I was familiar with through discussions with other fans.  I’m sure this year will be every bit as engaging and enjoyable!

House-Bound by Winifred Peck was not a Persephone I’d read much about prior to purchasing it.  I knew it was set in Edinburgh (loosely fictionalized as ‘Castleburgh’ in the novel) and that it was about a woman who, unable to find domestic help during the Second World War, firmly resolves to take on these duties herself.  This all sounded quite charming to me.  The opening lines both intrigued me and put me on edge:

It was as she stood in Mrs Loman’s Registry Office for Domestic Servants that Rose Fairweather suddenly realised what a useless and helpless woman she was.  Up till that moment she had always assumed vaguely that she was a busy and useful member of society.

Was this going to be a novel full of unhappy housewives, women feeling stifled by their domestic chores, humourlessly moaning about their tyrannical husbands, viewing their houses as prisons rather than homes?  If so, I wanted no part in it.  Happily, House-Bound proved to be a most delightful, thoughtful, and quietly amusing book, absolutely what I was in the mood for!

Rose Fairweather, by the time we are introduced to her as a middle-age matron, has led an interesting but generally unremarkable life.  After being widowed during the First War, Rose married Stuart, her cousin’s widower and the father of her darling Mickie, who Rose had been raising alongside her own daughter Flora since his mother’s death.  It was a marriage of convenience but a relatively contented one.  It is not a life of passion but of compromise, of subdued but content emotions.  In time, a third child Tom was added to the family, the eternal philosopher and peacemaker as the other members – particularly the petulant Flora – drift further and further away from one another.  But while family dynamics and emotional encounters do eventually come to form the crux of the book, it begins simply with a woman in need of a few maids and a cook struck by the revolutionary idea of assuming their work herself in light of the wartime labour shortage.

Rose does struggle courageously with her newly assumed housekeeping tasks, as would anyone taking on the chores of three maids with no experience either cooking or cleaning!  Even with the invaluable aid of the indomitable Mrs. Childe, who trains Rose for three hours a day in the basics of housekeeping, and the irrepressible Major Hosmer, who admirably exemplifies American efficiency and straightforwardness, guiding Rose not only in her housework but in her emotional development, Rose’s life becomes consumed by her house.  She works and works but is never done, never able to live up to the standards she expects of herself, and becomes so caught up in her new concerns and new routine that she doesn’t even want to leave her house, happier to stay and work there than to venture out to volunteer meetings or social obligations, happier to live in this world of her own creating, under her control, as war drives the outside world mad.  For her, her home is as much a fortress as it is a prison, a universe she understands and controls even if she can’t quite manage it as well as she might wish.

What ‘house-bound’ really comes to mean for Rose is the emotional rather than physical isolation of the self:

More and more it seemed to her that every human being was in some sense of what she herself was literally, nowadays, house-bound, tethered inexorably to a collection of all the extinct memories, and what the Major would call inhibitions, with which they had grown up, bits of mental furniture which they dusted and inspected daily.  ‘And we all have our kitchens too,’ she thought with the erratic fancifulness of fatigue, ‘where we hash up our motives, and warm up our own opinion of ourselves, and hoard all the goods we’ve inherited or got hold of instead of wishing to share them.  And there are barriers between us all, or most of us.  Stuart couldn’t get into the Major’s house.  I’m not really at home in Stuart’s!  And as for poor Flora.  All her doors and windows are locked and shuttered, and I’ve never been inside since she was a baby.  Oh dear, oh dear, how are we all to get out?’

Her family has come to barely know one another: yes, the boys are alright, but Rose, Stuart, and Flora live so much within themselves that the others are little more than strangers.  Her resentful daughter Flora selfishly views herself as the tragic victim of her mother’s neglect, cast aside by Rose in favour of her step-brother Mickie and Rose’s husband Stuart, never openly affectionate or demonstrative, seems to have drifted further and further away until Rose has no understanding of him, of what he thinks or feels.  What the book really focuses on is the breaking down of those walls that allows Rose to see her family anew, of the revelations about the characters of those closest to Rose that are unfortunately brought about by tragic turns of events (almost too much tragedy – indeed, it stretches the imagination that so many awful things could happen so quickly in one family).

There is a strong warning though this latter part of the novel that the old conventions, the codes of conduct which required stoicism and the bottling up of emotions, the full laying of the dinner table complete with flowers and useless accoutrements every evening, have no place in the world being shaped by the on-going war.  Major Hosmer exemplifies the spirit of openness which Peck seems to imply we must strive for: the future must be bright and energetic, with no emotional baggage or pointless traditions to weight us down.  We must have the courage to face our failings, to share our thoughts and emotions rather than keep them to ourselves while pushing others away.  We must confront our fears and rise to them, however much we may rather hide from them within ourselves, alone but protected.

In terms of writing and characterization, this is a good novel but certainly not a great one.  Published in 1942, it paints a fascinating picture of mid-war life, both in terms of daily domestic life and social conventions.  However, its greatest virtue must come from its willingness to confront what Peck certainly viewed as her society’s damagingly antisocial conventions of human behaviour, the isolation of the self that leaves so many people to struggle alone just when they need the warmth of human understanding most.

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